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Organizational Management

A Guide to Remote Working for Nonprofits

Author: Tatiana Morand
March 13, 2020
🕑 13 min read

With all the panic around COVID-19, remote work is trending.

Given that the WHO has announced it has reached pandemic status and many nonprofit organizations are cancelling large events, one of the next logical steps to prevent groups of people from gathering is asking employees to work remotely if they can.

In fact, many large companies, such as Amazon and Facebook, have mandated that their staff must work from home (and I’m finishing up this article sitting on my sofa with one of my cats beside me).

Nonprofits have typically lagged behind in adopting this trend, but if there’s ever been a time to start… it’s now.

Even after the pandemic scare is over, remote work can benefit both your employees and your nonprofit in a variety of ways, from improved employee retention to the ability to provide a more equitable workplace.

However, if your nonprofit is looking into remote working — whether it’s for the duration of the pandemic or when it comes to implementing a more permanent policy — there are a few things you’ll have to keep in mind.

In this post, I’m going to cover:

I’ve also included the perspective of several nonprofit employees who currently work remotely to give you a sense of what it’s like.

How Remote Work Can Work For Nonprofits

Just like any other organization, nonprofits can benefit from remote work in a variety of ways.

Wherever your organization falls on the scale of remote work — from having full-time remote employees to allowing the occasional work-from-home day — there are a variety of benefits your organization can see.

Here are a few benefits of working remotely, seen through a nonprofit lens.

1. Keep Employees Happy

For many employees, working remotely is a way to resolve a lot of the problems with the typical workweek. For some, the ability to avoid a commute gives them more time to spend with their families. For others, being able to work from home simply allows them to focus much better than they can in an office. (Personally, as a dedicated introvert, I just like being able to be alone while I work!)

“As a parent, working remotely has improved my own and my family’s well-being so much,” says Elizabeth Doerr, freelance writer. “This has made me enjoy my work more in general because I feel more balanced in my life. By not having to factor in a commute, I spend more time with my kid and get more done for my family without the added stress. I also think I use my time much more efficiently and more productively when working from home.”

“I never understood why we tolerate commutes that are 50% longer because we insist that everyone needs to be someplace at the same time,” adds Katherine Wertheim, fundraising consultant at Werth-It. “All that traffic at 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m could be time spent with family or being productive.”

Although what you like about it may differ, all of these factors combine to make working remotely an option that many people would like to have as they further their nonprofit career path.

2. Attract Top Talent

“To me, the number-one reason all organizations (not just nonprofits) should allow people to work remotely is very simple: talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity isn’t,” says Mark Little, independent nonprofit consultant and former Director of US ReStore Development for Habitat for Humanity International. “How much genius have we missed out on because a brilliant person happened to live in Berea, KY and the organization was in NYC?”

Some people may find it difficult to find nonprofit work where they currently live, but would be the perfect fit for that development position you’ve been trying to fill. Offering it as an option means that you’ll be able to source talent from halfway across the country, or even the world, as opposed to needing to focus on your city.

3. Reduce Contagion

Faced with the threat of COVID-19, slowing the spread of disease is one of the biggest reasons to allow remote work. Even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, it can help slow disease transmission for those days when you’re still able to work but are just a bit sniffly, or if a sick child needs attention but is also taking a lot of naps.

4. Improve Equity

The nonprofit space is all about fighting for equity — but what about when it comes to your employees?

“People with disabilities and chronic illnesses regularly struggle to carve out flexible work arrangements, including reasonable accommodations and telecommuting,” says Andrew Pulrang in this piece about coronavirus and disability for Forbes. 

People who have faced discrimination in office spaces before or who need additional accommodation at work may benefit from working from home.

“What amazing contribution could have been made to a cause and was missed because a person was a wheelchair user and the organization wasn’t interested in providing accommodation?” says Mark. “How many amazing colleagues have we all missed out on because they might be neurodivergent and happen to do their best work in a familiar setting like their home rather than the chaos of today’s open office?”

For example, it allows employees who have frequent appointments, or who can’t commute alone, to save a lot of time going back and forth to work and to their appointments. Of course, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of making work accessible — but it is a step in the right direction.

5. Save Costs

Although this reason isn’t one that’s discussed as often, it’s one that can matter to cash-strapped nonprofits: if some of your employees work from home, you can save on office space. 

Since cost of living might be lower in other regions than in your own, you can potentially also save on salary costs (while still paying your employees fairly, of course!).

“I work in international development as a consultant, mainly working in the Pacific, but I live in rural New Zealand,” says Elise, who currently works remotely at a nonprofit. “I fill the role of an expatriate employee — at almost half the cost to the organisation than if they had to house me in the country.”

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The Potential Drawbacks of Remote Work for Nonprofits

Of course, any decision you make around remote work will have its pros and cons. Here are a few questions that executive directors and boards may have when deciding to implement remote work.

1. Is It Fair?

For nonprofits where some staff need to participate in program work in person, such as shelters and libraries, it may feel unfair to allow some staff to work from home when others simply don’t have that option.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that conundrum. If you’re an organization of that nature, any policy you make around it will have to address it and will require a huge commitment to fairness and open communication around the issue.

2. How Secure Is It?

Security can also be a concern. Will employees be using secure Internet connections? Will they be able to access all the information they need in a safe way? Including in your remote work policy which software employees can use at home (e.g. only using work computers rather than personal ones) may help mitigate the risk. You can also use a VPN to keep access to confidential information secure.

3. When Will Employees Be Available?

Some people may find remote work very helpful in allowing them to complete errands or go to appointments during non-peak hours, and will compensate with their work hours accordingly. However, if this isn’t communicated transparently, it can lead to confusion around when people are available and even to a lack of trust about whether or not remote workers are working at all.

“I think it scares some nonprofit leaders to allow remote work because they fear a lack of productivity or full attention to the work,” says Lisa Rimmert, Marketing Director for Solar United Neighbors. “From my experience working and managing remotely, this couldn’t be further from what actually happens. Remote workers are every bit as dedicated and hardworking as office workers, sometimes even more so due to the ease and convenience of working from home.”

To help this happen, communication around availability is key. Implementing peak hours (for example, 10-12 and 2-4) in which employees are required to be available for meetings and contact can help with that. Additionally, having all employees have their calendars available for public view can also create a more transparent atmosphere. This way, if Janice has a doctor’s appointment at 3 PM and Ali has a call with his daughter’s school at 4, other team members will know not to contact them at those times and won’t become frustrated if they don’t reply.

Many employees may even discover that they can get a lot more done when they’re not in the office.

“As for me, I find that I can get an 8-hour day accomplished in five hours when I work from home: no noise from others, no people just stopping by to talk about last weekend or their plans for next weekend, and meetings are scheduled with a purpose,” adds Katherine.

6 Things to Keep in Mind for Nonprofits Considering Remote Work

So, your organization has considered the pros and cons, and is ready to start thinking about the concrete ways they can get remote work to work. Here are the first things you’ll need to work out.

1. Here’s Where to Start

Difficulties can arise when there are loopholes or room for interpretation in your organization’s rules about remote work. For example, are employees only allowed a certain amount of work-from-home days per week? Is it a percentage of their time? Are there certain tasks that still need to be accomplished in the office?

Laying out exactly what is expected when it comes to remote working ensures you’re all on the same page, and gives you something to point to when questions arise.

Here are a few sample policies you can check out as inspiration:

And there’s one last step: don’t forget to get your policy checked out by a lawyer to ensure that everything is aboveboard.

2. Use the Right Software

There are a lot of tools that are designed to make telecommuting and teleconferencing easier, and that can make remote employees feel just as connected as they did in the office.

“I’m a classic extrovert, so you’d think I wouldn’t like the lack of in-person socializing, but in fact, I love it and I still feel super connected to my teams through regular Zoom calls, the use of Google Suite (which I’d want to use remotely or not), and Slack,” says Elizabeth.

Here are a few categories of software that nonprofits can make use of to make remote work work better:

  • Project management software: Trello, Asana, or other similar tools can help your team have clarity around what other people are working on so you can stay connected even if you’re not face-to-face.
  • Chat apps: Slack is free or heavily discounted for nonprofits (depending on your size), making it a great choice to communicate with your team while they’re working from home. Other messaging apps, such as Microsoft Teams or GChat, might also work depending on the other tools you’re using. This can also help to show when people are available; for example, if someone needs to leave to run an errand, they can set their Slack status to away so that it’s the same as being away from their desks. For a great guide on mastering Slack notifications, check out this post.
  • Video conferencing software: Being able to have frequent video calls with other remote employees and management can reduce the feeling of isolation that can arise from remote work, as well as making meetings with remote teams feel more personal. TechSoup offers discounted Zoom plans for nonprofits, and also has a list to compare the other free and affordable options. 
  • Password management tools: Using 1Password or LastPass can allow employees to keep track of their passwords no matter what tech they’re using, as well as sharing passwords more securely amongst teams.
  • Documentation tools: Using Google Suite, Microsoft Online, or individual tools like OneNote can help keep all the information your team needs online so it’s easy for everyone to access. It can also help with collaboration, so that even if you’re not side by side, you can still work in the same document.

It’s no secret that nonprofits frequently lag behind when it comes to technology use. This means implementing tools in the cloud can be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to remote work. However, given the variety of free or inexpensive tools, there are a lot of great options for nonprofits to try out (if you can overcome your ED’s obsession with her rotary phone!).

3. Be Prepared for This Challenge

One of the biggest difficulties that comes up with remote work is the separation from the office culture. Remote workers may feel left out of informal social events, or like they’re missing out on the natural watercooler conversations that happen within a group of people.

However, there are ways to work around it. For example, if you have an office party, call your remote employees or organize a virtual event for them. If employees in the office are getting swag, make sure the remote workers get it too. To create informal discussions, you can start a channel in your messaging app where people can casually ask questions or chat about their days in order to maintain the same sense of team cohesion.

Small touches like that can make a huge difference when it comes to creating a culture at your nonprofit that’s welcoming to remote workers. If possible, bringing remote workers together every so often for social events can also help them feel valued by your organization.

4. What Managers Need to Know

Remote management also comes with its own sets of challenges. The sense of isolation I described in the last point can be increased when it comes to the relationship between a manager and the people they manage.

Having more frequent check-ins with remote employees, such as a quick call every morning, can help maintain a sense of team cohesion for people who spend more time out of the office than in it. If it’s possible to meet up in person at some point to establish a relationship, even better!

Something else you can do is to create a plan with clear goals that covers when tasks are expected to be complete, and continue having those conversations on a regular basis so it’s clear what the employee is working on. (Of course, this is good even if you are in the office full-time, so it doesn’t hurt either way!)

“When managers lead based on results, and when the lines of communication are open between managers and employees, remote work can be optimal!” adds Lisa.

5. What To Do About Meetings

“Could this meeting just have been an email?” is a question many of us have asked (silently or otherwise) throughout our time at work. However, for remote workers, this difficulty is often compounded by glitchy tech and laggy video.

To make meetings successful for remote workers, there are a few things you can do:

  • Put together a clear agenda beforehand, so it’s clear when remote employees will get the chance to speak. This will also ensure everyone is on the same page about what needs to be done beforehand.
  • Get everyone to go on video if one person is calling in. That way, the playing field is levelled and remote employees can see what’s going on in the room.
  • Allocate part of the meeting to chat. Something I’ve seen firsthand when working remotely is that meetings I’ve been a part of in-person will often include an “icebreaker” portion as employees walk into the room and greet each other… but remote employees often aren’t called until after this part of the meeting is over. Getting everyone online for that part can help build a friendly atmosphere as the meeting begins.

For more advice, check out these posts:

6. One Final Reminder

It can be difficult to determine tone over chat without visual cues, or in meetings where you’re not seeing the person face-to-face. This can lead to miscommunication and doubt within your team, or to remote employees experiencing an “us versus them” mentality compared to employees in the office.

But remember: we’re all in this together. As challenging as it can be at times, assuming positive intent throughout emails and messages can help ensure you’re all working together smoothly no matter what happens.

“We miss out on such brilliance and creativity with this stupid requirement to come to a specific building at a specific time,” adds Mark. “Remote work isn’t some sort of nice benefit for people who’d rather work in their jammies; it’s one easy way to offer a more inclusive workspace, attracting the best-of-the-best, regardless of all other factors.”

Implementing remote work at your nonprofit might not be easy, but in the long run, it can be worth it in order to improve staff morale, create a more equitable workplace, and keep employees safer in the case of disease.

Does your nonprofit have a remote work policy? Let us know in the comments how it’s worked out for you!

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